Authors: William Kotzwinkle
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary
Swimmer in the Secret Sea
SWIMMER IN THE SECRET SEA
A CORGI BOOK 0
52 10942 8
First published in Great Britain by Aidan Ellis
Aidan Ellis edition published 1976
Corgi edition published 1979
Copyright © 1975 by William Kotzwinkle
This work originally appeared in slightly different form in Redbook magazine and appears in PRIZE STORIES 1975: THE O. HENRY AWARDS,
published by Doubleday and Company, Inc.
Corgi Books are published by Transworld Publishers Ltd.,
Century House, 61-63 Uxbridge Road, Ealing, London, W5 5SA
Made and printed in Great Britain by
Richard Clay (The Chaucer Press), Ltd., Bungay, Suffolk.
SWIMMER IN THE SECRET SEA
'Johnny, my water just broke!'
Laski rose through a sea of dreams, trying to find the surface. The sea was dark, and iridescent creatures came toward him, one of them suddenly exploding into brilliance. Laski woke, sitting up in bed. Diane had her hand on the night lamp and was staring down at a water stain spreading on the sheets.
'That's it,' he said. 'Get ready.' The first wave of shock was already over him, speeding his pulse, turning his skin cold, making him shiver.
'I'd better put a napkin on,' she said. 'I'm getting everything all wet.'
He took her arm and helped her to the stairs. She too had begun to tremble and they were trembling together as they passed the window and saw the forest, covered with snow. The stillness of the woods calmed him, and he paused with her on the landing, drinking in the white nectar of the moon. His trembling subsided
some, but hers continued, and he walked with her toward the bathroom. She went stooped over, her arms across her mountainous stomach, where her earthquake had its origin. He helped her onto the toilet seat, then went to the closet and brought a blanket. He wrapped it around her and rubbed his hands up and down her arms, trying to generate some warmth.
She looked up at him, her teeth chattering. He hadn't expected it to be like this, the two of them caught and shaken like rag dolls. They'd studied the childbirth manuals carefully, and performed the exercises regularly, and he'd thought it would be merely an extension of all that, but there'd been no transition. Suddenly they were being dragged over a bed of rocks. Her eyes were like a child's, astonished and terrified, but her voice was calm and he realized she was prepared, in spite of fear and chattering teeth.
'I can control the water now,' she said. 'I can keep it from running out.'
'I'll get the truck warmed up.' He went outside into the snow. Beyond the shadowy tops of the pines the vast sky-bowl glittered, and the half-ton truck sat in the moonlight, covered with brightly sparkling ice. He opened the door and slid in, pulling on the choke and turning the ignition key.
The starter motor whined, caught in the icy hand of the North. 'Come on,' said Laski softly, appealing to the finer nature of the truck, the trusty half-ton which never failed him. He listened for the little cough of life in the whining, and when it came he quickly gunned the motor, bringing the truck completely to life. 'You're a good old wagon.' As far north as they were, any motor could freeze up, any battery suddenly die, and it was fifteen miles through the thickest forest to the nearest other vehicle. He'd seen fires built under motors, and had heard incredible cursing float out on northern nights, while hours had passed and all ideas had failed and nobody went anywhere. He kept the choke out, so the motor ran fast, then turned on the heater and stepped back out into the snow. The truck's exhaust was the only cloud against the brilliant moon, and he went through the swirling vapor, back toward the cabin which sat like a tiny lantern in the great tangled wilderness.
Diane was still shivering in the bathroom, her stomach bulging under her nightgown. He helped her back toward the stairs, and up to the bedroom, where she started to dress, going through all the regular motions, but trembling constantly. It seemed to Laski there were two distinct Dianes —one who was shaking like a leaf, and another who was as calm and decisive as any old midwife. He felt the same split in himself as he picked up her valise and carried it toward the stairs. His hand was trembling, his heart pounding, but another part of him was calm, unshakable as an old tree. This calm quiet partner seemed to dwell in some region of the body Laski couldn't identify. His guts were jumping, his brain was racing, his legs were shaking, but somewhere in him there was peace.
He stepped into the snow. The truck was running smoothly now and he eased off on the choke, until the engine was gently cooking. Turning, he saw Diane through the upstairs window of the cabin, her stomach huge in front of her. She moved slowly and carefully, and he knew that she was going to exactly the clothes she'd planned on, finding them just where she wanted them. His own life was a bundle of clothes flung in all directions, shoes dancing in unlikely places, nothing where he could find it.
He went back in, joining her in the bedroom. 'How're you feeling?'
'The contractions have begun.'
'What are they like?'
'I can't describe it.'
He helped her down the stairs to the door, and looked around the kitchen. She's got everything in place, there's no more to be done here. He locked the door behind him and led her to the truck. She slid inside and he covered her with a blanket.
The truck was warm and moved easily up the snow-packed lane, through the tall pine trees. At the top of the lane he turned onto the narrow road. They'd walked it all winter long, and they'd played a game, pretending that the baby had already been born and was swinging along between them like a little trapeze artist holding onto their hands, and they'd swung him that way, up and down the road.
The road went past a vast snow-covered field, in which an old wagon appeared, on its own journey to nowhere, rotting away, its spoked wheels half-buried in the snow.
'I'd feel better if you didn't go so fast.'
He slowed down. One minute, ten minutes saved, makes no difference. We know how long the first stages of labor last.
There was ice beneath the snow, and the wheels of the truck did not have perfect traction, but he knew how to play the road, easing through the turns, never using much brake. Both sides of the narrow road had been deeply ditched to carry away the waters of the spring runoff, but now they were covered with snow and it would be a simple matter to slide into the ditch and be there all night. Every winter he'd helped pull travelers out of the ditch, with much swearing, skidding, heaving, and hauling. It was great fun; but not tonight.
At the bend in the road stood the one-room school-house, forgotten in the moonlight. He geared down, taking the turn in second, thinking of little boys with caps and knickers on, and little girls in gingham dresses, long ago, coming up the hill toward the schoolhouse. Then he was through the turn, leaving the old ghosts behind him, on their endless walk through a buried century.
The road went straight through pines which formed a high wall on both sides. 'Old Ben is up,' said Laski, nodding toward a ramshackle farm-house in the midst of the trees. Most of the windows were broken out and it was like all the other abandoned farmhouses in the settlement, except for a flickering light inside, from the one room the old lumberjack had sealed off against the elements.
Diane looked toward the light. A hermit herself, she liked old Ben. He had a bad reputation in the village, living as he did, so contrary to the ways of the world. But he could make anything out of wood—fiddles, boats, snowshoes—and he'd spent a lifetime in the woods. Laski saw a shadow moving in the darkness—old Ben's dog, sniffing around in the snow. Then the truck was into the next turn, near the river that came out of the darkness, its icy skin shining in the moonlight. Laski followed the river until it slipped back into the trees, where it wove a silver thread through the dark branches.
Another clearing appeared, and a small broad shack. It was a camp for 'sports,' as the backwoods Canadians called the Americans who came to fish and hunt and rough it for a week. Laski remembered a time, a long time ago—he and his father were fishing in Canada, steering a motorboat along on a bright morning over a wide and winding river. Laski had suddenly felt like he was the river and the trees and the sun and the wind.
He touched Diane gently on the shoulder. She was trembling inside her heavy coat, and he knew enough not to ask her how she felt.
The camp for American sports fell back into darkness. The villagers had thought of Laski and his wife as sports, with no visible means of support, until it was learned they were artists. Never having had such strange creatures around, except for old Coleman Johns, the mad inventor who had built his own automatic milking machine and promised to make a trip to the moon with a magnet in his pants, the country people left the Laskis alone. There was some talk that Laski, with his thick beard and wire glasses, resembled old Coleman enough to be his twin brother. Whenever Laski drove past the ruined foundation that had once been Coleman's home, he was overtaken by a strange nostalgia, as if he and the mad inventor had shared the same vision of this vast land, which made men build strange objects beneath the moon.
Laski's sculpture was certainly odd. Likenesses of Diane filled the forest, her strangely beautiful face gradually appearing on tree stumps or on rocks. Old dead trees with gray bare branches had become Diane dancing, like a priestess of the wood. Eventually the ceaseless weaving of the weeds had made gowns of green for the statues, bright berry beads and buttons entwining the arms and legs, marking them as part of the endless dream of the deep pines.
'The contractions are ten minutes apart.'
Laski laid a firmer foot on the gas pedal. Baby's in a hurry.
A ghostly light flashed ahead of Laski, leaping out of the darkness of the country graveyard where Coleman Johns lay buried and where Laski's headlights had caught the top of an old tombstone. The truck wheels spun on the turn, rear end lashing like a tail before coming straight again. Then darkness claimed the graveyard once more and the road was again lined by heavy forest.
'Maternity?' smiled the receptionist. 'Do you have your papers with you?'
Diane took them out of her purse. An orderly came across the waiting room with a wheelchair and Dianne sat down in it, still wearing her shaggy forest coat. Laski looked at the receptionist.
`The orderly will take her up and you can follow in just a few minutes, sir. I have some papers for you to fill out.'
Laski touched Diane's hand, and she looked at him, smiling but distant, as the orderly turned the chair and wheeled her off.
The receptionist put a form into her typewriter and asked Laski questions about age, address, insurance—lifeless items holding him in his chair.
A drunken young man, face cut and swollen, swaggered into the waiting room. Glassy-eyed, he approached the desk. The receptionist looked up. 'If you'll have a seat, please,' she said coldly.
The young man leaned on the desk, but the receptionist ignored him, even though he was bleeding from a wound over his eye.
Laski looked into the young man's eyes, expecting hostility. He found a frightened child making brave. The nurses will give him a hard time, thought Laski. Then the doctor will stitch him and he'll be turned back out into the night. But he was once the baby on the way and everybody rallied around him. The great moment was once his.
An older man entered the waiting room and looked around for a moment, until his eye caught the young man's figure. He came over slowly, his walk and manner similar to the young man's.
'Nothing much,' said the young man, striking a con-fident pose.
'I haven't seen you for awhile.'
'I've been around.'
'You interested in working?'
'You can go to work tomorrow.'
'Oh no,' said the young man, shaking his head and touching his bruises. 'I can't do anything tomorrow.'
The papers were completed. The orderly returned and Laski followed him down the hallway to an elevator. They
rode together in silence, to the floor marked
. The hall held a couch and two leather chairs. Beyond it was a door marked
The orderly walked away. Laski sat down. This is where all the fathers wait. He stood, and walked slowly up and down. Now I'm pacing the floor like an expectant father.
The sounds of a floor-waxing machine came along the hallway, somewhere out of sight, whirring, wheels creaking, coming along. Laski listened to its approach and then it appeared, pushed along by a uniformed maintenance man. 'This is your big night, eh?'
The waxer nodded and waxed on. He's seen it all, thought Laski, seen them come and go, seen them every night—pacing back and forth on his waxed floor.